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Story Excerpt

Death Spiral
by Kate MacLeod

Sanyah Allani had fallen asleep with the hologram running again. The chair she slouched in might be the same as the one in her quarters, but it was never as cozy there surrounded by rough-hewn rock walls as it was in her virtual reality. The fire in particular was always such a vivid illusion she could almost feel its warmth and smell the seasoned wood slowly turning into ash.

The hologram dropped instantly when the call came through, thrusting her too quickly back into reality. The figure of her husband Desmon on the chair opposite hers looked up at her in surprise, then flickered out of existence, leaving her staring at the rock wall that was much closer to her than his chair had been.

Now she was in her own ever-cold room on the mining asteroid, the one she worked really hard not to think of as a cave. But it felt like a cave. Cold and damp, especially after her years in the controlled environment of a Martian orbiting station. She had run every kind of check there was, but nothing in the environmental systems backed up her sense that she was always smelling something moldy. And she had never been able to follow the scent to find the source either.

But it lingered. It was always there. And she always smelled it most strongly just after her hologram shut down.

She tapped her communicator, more to stop its annoying buzzing than out of a desire to answer the call. She glanced at the nearest screen. It was the middle of the night, as much as that meant anything on an asteroid.

“Allani here,” she said and pushed herself out of the chair she had settled too far into. Her joints protested, just like they always did these days, and she started to pace the length of her room to get everything loosened up.

“Allani, we have a situation.” It was Isbel Delin, the woman in charge of the human half of the mining asteroid. She sounded even more tired and annoyed than Allani felt, and Allani guessed she had been woken up by a call of her own just a few minutes before.

“Something with the stigmergs?” Allani guessed. She stopped her pacing in front of her mirror and realized she had fallen asleep in her uniform. She brushed her hands down the wrinkles of her uniform pants and lifted the front of her shirt to check the smell. It would do. She reached for her jacket.

“I’m really hoping if we act fast, it won’t be,” Delin said.

Allani stopped moving, one arm halfway through the sleeve of her jacket. “Your tone is spooking me, Delin.”

“Probably because I’m spooked,” Delin said. “I’m sending you a location point. Meet me there as quickly as you can.”

“Will do,” Allani said, but to dead air. Delin had already signed off.

Allani fingercombed her short, steel-gray hair into shape. Then she grabbed her belt from where she always hung it by the door. It had all the tools she needed as the chief of security. Most of those tools were for communication or for the recording and collecting of evidence. But she also had a gun. She was trained in how to use it but had never once had to draw it. She hoped whatever was going on wasn’t going to change that.

But she didn’t like the edge of panic she had heard in Delin’s voice. Something was very wrong.

And she didn’t want the stigmergs to know about it. What did that mean?

Allani hated navigating around the asteroid. She had been living here for months, and it was still an incomprehensible maze to her. Unlike the orderly corridors of a space station, the tunnels through the asteroid went in all possible directions. It was like trying to find your way through the inside of the strands of pasta in a plate of spaghetti. A lot of the times, the tunnels didn’t even connect. She had learned that quickly but still couldn’t avoid the constant hassle of finding herself staring at a dead end she thought was leading her somewhere.

At least the first step was easy: taking the elevator from the human habitation area down to the mining levels. But the inside of the elevator car had a faint aroma like someone had washed everything down with undiluted vinegar.

Stigmerg smell. It didn’t bother her the way the moldy smell in her quarters did, but it was strong enough to make her eyes water as she stood there, waiting to reach her level. The only reason it would be in this car was if the stigmergs had sent a representative to call on Delin. Which they had a few days before. Allani had been there as chief of security. It had been the fifth time she had been face to face with a stigmerg.

The stigmergs had colonies all over Mars, but she had never interacted with any of them while serving in the orbiting station. She had seen pictures of them before, but seeing a picture of an ant the size of a pony was one thing. Being in the presence of one was altogether different.

There was the smell, of course. It was even stronger when you were in the room with them. Then there was the constant clicking noise, the noise that meant nothing. They didn’t communicate through sound. No, to understand their communication, you had to pay very close attention to the gradations in that vinegar smell.

As far as Allani knew, no human could do it. Some could tell strong emotions like anger or panic, but the thoughts inside of the stigmergs heads were still a mystery to them.

The stigmergs and some human scientists had developed a machine together that bridged the gap somewhat. But it was far from a perfect solution. Emotions came through far stronger than rational thoughts, which wasn’t a great basis for any kind of negotiation.

And this asteroid was a joint mining venture. Which meant that Delin had to work with her stigmerg counterpart. This mostly involved dividing up the territory and leaving each other alone, but shortly after Allani had arrived, something had changed. Something was upsetting the stigmergs, but just what it was wasn’t clear.

Except, ironically, they didn’t like something they were smelling. And it wasn’t Allani’s mystery mold. It was something else. The head stigmerg kept coming back to discuss it with Delin, but despite everyone in the room working hard to understand each other, that understanding was too elusive.

The elevator stopped, and the doors slid open to show a long, dark mining tunnel. But just to the right of the doors, waiting for her with a glowing light in her hand, was Delin.

“I figured you might get lost again, and time is of the essence,” Delin said, her tone completely lacking her usual humor.

“The stigmergs have been complaining about a smell. Have you found where it’s coming from?” Allani asked as she jogged to keep up with Delin.

“I hope not,” Delin said grimly. “You know they hate that name,” she added.

“I know. I’ve never once said it in front of any of them. But it’s awkward only using pronouns. And I can’t pronounce a sequence of smells,” Allani said. “And they’ve yet to give us a better name to call them.”

“They are as baffled by the idea of a sequence of sounds as we are by the smells,” Delin said. “I don’t think the original scientists who started calling them stigmergs meant any offense, but I can kind of see why they’d take it that way.”

“If they want us to have more joint ventures with them like this place, they’re going to need to come up with something,” Allani grumbled. “Do you know what they call us?”

Delin gave her a tight grin. “I imagine it’s no more flattering than our name for them. Maybe it’s best we don’t know.” Then she nodded toward the mouth of a narrower tunnel they were approaching. “It’s just in there.”

“Great,” Allani said, mostly to herself.

Another thing that life on a space station had never forced upon her: crawling on her hands and knees through a tight space between rocks that always developed sharp protrusions just were she was setting down her weight.

Luckily, this tunnel was only narrow for a few meters. Then they were in a womb-like space, the walls all rounded smooth like the inside of a cocoon.

But the thing curled up in the center of the space was no caterpillar.

It was a human. And even as it lay there with its back to the two of them climbing in through the opening, Allani could tell it was a man.

“Shit,” she said, stumbling in her crawl and landing hard on one hip. She could smell dead flesh, just barely. Decomposition hadn’t set in yet, but it was close.

There was another smell too, a smell Allani would be sure she was imagining except it was so strong. Crusty bread.

Allani pressed a hand to her forehead, willing the smell to pass. Smelling bread, wasn’t that a sign of a stroke?

“You see the problem,” Delin said, misreading Allani’s reaction. “We have to get rid of this before the stigmergs find out.”

“What if they already know?” Allani asked. “If they think we’re hiding something from them, it will be worse than if we just admitted what we found here.”

“We’re far from their territory. I don’t think they know,” Delin said.

“Who found it?” Allani asked.

Delin barked out a humorless laugh. “One of the support crew got lost bringing repair parts to the main drill,” she said. “She came straight to me personally. Smart kid. This is pretty far from everything. I think we’ll be okay.”

Allani said nothing. She crawled closer to the body using just her knees, pulling on gloves as she went. She touched the body gently on the shoulder, almost as if she were afraid of waking him up. But the body was cold and stiff under her hand. He had been dead alone here for quite some time.

“Someone knows he’s here,” Allani said. “Someone has to. Someone sneaked him in.”

“I don’t think we’ll be able to keep it secret for long,” Delin said. “Just long enough to have answers before the stigmergs come demanding them.”

“Do you think this is what they were complaining about smelling?” Allani asked. She rolled the body onto its back. It was a young man, maybe mid-twenties, with scraggly dark hair and the beginnings of an unkempt beard. His clothes were covered in the dust that coated every tunnel throughout the asteroid. He looked like he had been crawling around inside the asteroid for a week or two anyway. Not longer than that, unless he’d originally been shaving.

“That was my first thought as well,” Delin said.


“They were so specific about it when we established this place,” she said, her eyes unfocused as if she were gazing back through time to that first meeting. “No males. Not even infants. Only women can work the human side. Because male humans release a pheromone that they cannot tolerate.”

“Can’t tolerate how?” Allani asked.

“It disrupts their ability to communicate with each other?” Delin said with a shrug. “It was never totally clear. The scientists who facilitated that meeting had better equipment than the machine I have in my office, but not much better. But their emotions were strong, and there was no arguing with that. No men on the human side, ever.”

“So where did this one come from?” Allani mused to herself.

“That’s what I need you to find out, as soon as you can,” Delin said. “I can disappear a body, but like you said, someone already knows. Someone helped him get here. I need to be absolutely sure he’s the only one.”

“I’m on it,” Allani said.

Three days later the body had been shipped to Ceres for identification, and the stigmergs seemed none the wiser. But they were still complaining about whatever it was that they smelled.

And Allani was no closer to answers to any of it.

She and her meager team had reviewed every bit of video from every angle of the docking bay, but nothing had gone on or off the asteroid that hadn’t had its contents scanned and verified. However that man had gotten onto the asteroid, he hadn’t been a stowaway. And he hadn’t taken the place of any cargo. A thorough inventory had found absolutely nothing missing. Certainly nothing man-sized.

So Allani had circled back to where she had started: the cocoon-like cave far from the active parts of the mine. And the girl who had found him there.

She had assumed when Delin had called her a “smart kid,” she had been speaking from that place both she and Allani lived in, the world where they were older than most of the equipment they used and half the stations they dwelt in. To the two of them, most of the inhabitants of the Solar System felt like kids.

But this girl really was a kid. Allani looked from her records displayed on the tablet in her hands up to the girl sitting hunched up small in the chair across the desk from her and then back again.

If anything, she looked older in the photo taken for her records.

“Rosia Kasra,” Allani said, both reading the name off the tablet and addressing the girl across from her. Rosia mumbled a response, tucking her body up even smaller as if she wished she could collapse in on herself and disappear. Allani gave her what she hoped was a reassuring smile. “You’re not in trouble here, Miss Kasra. I just have a few questions for you.”

“Yes, Chief,” Rosia said miserably.

Allani switched off the tablet and set it down, then folded her hands over it. “Have you been here long?”

“I came on the same ship you did,” Rosia said.

“Did you?” Allani said in surprise. “I’m sorry I don’t remember you.”

“There were five of us,” Rosia said. She blushed furiously but still got the words out, “and you were still really sad.”

“The word is ‘grieving,’” Allani said, but she couldn’t deny the girl was probably right. Her feelings had still been raw when she’d taken the job rather than retiring alone to the cabin on Earth she and Desmon had saved up their whole lives to buy together. She had sold it before coming here never having seen it.

But she knew what the living room looked like. She knew that very well.

“Chief?” Rosia said, and Allani pulled her mind back to the present.

“I thought I was the only one still getting lost in the tunnels,” Allani said to Rosia. “As chief of security, most of my time is spent in the docking bay or in the administrative offices. I don’t get down to the mines much. But you work down there, don’t you?”

“I’m a fetcher,” Rosia said. “I’m not old enough to do actual mine labor yet, but I run and get whatever anyone needs. I don’t have a specific team I stick with or anything. I have to go all over.”

“I would think that would argue for you knowing the tunnels better than others,” Allani said.

“I think the other fetchers do,” Rosia said, squirming in her chair. “I just can’t get it all in my head. It’s like . . . if I could just see it from the outside maybe I’d get it.”

“I know what you mean,” Allani said with a sigh. “I can’t get a mental map in my head either. To be honest, when I’m down there, I usually find someone who looks like they know where they’re going, and I just follow them.”

“Does that work?” Rosia asked.

“Well, usually when they see me following, they ask me where I’m trying to get to,” Allani admitted. “Maybe that doesn’t work for you.”

“No, I’m supposed to work it out on my own,” Rosia said. “I suppose the ants think the same thing.”

“What’s that?” Allani asked.

“Sorry, stigmergs,” Rosia said, as if correcting a faux pas. Which, given Allani’s recent converstation with Delin, was ironic. But slang terms had a way of creating themselves, and some were always more offensive than others. Somehow, Allani didn’t think the aliens would like being called “ants” any better than being called “stigmergs.”

But that wasn’t what she had meant. “What do you mean they think the same thing?” she asked.

“Oh, that if they follow anyone they see, that they’ll get to where they’re going,” Rosia said. “When they get lost in the mines, that’s what they do. They find one of us and follow us. The others when they notice a stigmerg behind them just walk them toward their half of the asteroid. Once they get close enough to recognize where they are, they scuttle off. But I feel bad when one gets behind me. I can’t lead it anywhere.”

“I thought everything was kept separate?” Allani said.

“Up here it is, but down there, it’s kind of impossible not to mix,” Rosia said. “We don’t mine the same places, but our paths still cross all the time. But no one makes any trouble, not on our side or on theirs.”

“That’s something, I suppose,” Allani said, putting a mental pin in that to ask Delin about it later. “So you found this dead body, but he wasn’t in a main tunnel or even a walkable one.”

Rosia flushed a dark red again. She wasn’t squirming in her chair, but she was gripping the arms with whitened fingers as if fighting the impulse.

“You knew he was there,” Allani guessed.

“I was lost,” Rosia said.

Allani sighed, then switched her tablet back on. “I’ve checked on some things, Miss Kasra. You weren’t scheduled to be on duty on the shift in question. You had been on sleep rotation for a full six hours. Just how lost are you telling me you were?”

“I,” Rosia said, but then shut her mouth without saying another word. Her lip trembled, and she bit down on it hard enough to draw blood.

Allani stood up to reach across her desk and gently grasp the girl’s bony arm. She could feel every muscle in her little body tensed up so tight it just had to hurt.

But at the softest of squeezes from Allani’s hand, all the tension rushed out of Rosia’s body. She collapsed down into the chair, wrapped her arms around her head, and sobbed.

“Stop it. Pull yourself together. I still have questions for you,” Allani snapped. The girl raised her head out of her arms, but her tear-filled eyes were absolutely wounded. Allani focused on a point in the middle of her forehead. Sympathy would have to wait. For all she knew, this girl was the murderer.

“Did you kill him?” Allani asked her.

“No,” Rosia said. For whatever reason, the question seemed to calm her. She sat up and wiped the tears from her face. “He was dead when I got there.”

“With bread,” Allani guessed.

“I had a whole basket of food, but I guess I was too late. Not because I got lost, I don’t mean that. They sent me too late. They knew right where he was, but they didn’t send me for so long I guess he just died waiting,” Rosia said.

It was a grim image, but Allani was fairly certain it wasn’t a true one. Why would that man just starve to death waiting there for help? Nothing about the body had indicated that he couldn’t move on his own.

But it wasn’t the most pertinent question. “Rosia, who is this ‘they’?” Allani asked.

Rosia was squirming in her chair again, but Allani fixed her with a stern glare, and she instantly sat still. “I was brought here from an orphanage on Ceres as part of a youth work program,” she said.

“So your record states,” Allani said.

“But that isn’t sponsored by the mining company. It was set up by the other miners. Did you know that?” Rosia asked.

“I did not,” Allani admitted.

“There are six of us here now,” Rosia said. “We’re hired as fetchers, but that’s not what we really do here.”

“What do the other miners need children for?” Allani asked. She was musing to herself, but since she had done it out loud, Rosia answered for her.

“We can get through the beehive,” she said.

“I’m sorry, what?” Allani asked.

“The beehive,” Rosia said. “I might as well just show you. You’ll know all about it soon enough. Everyone says so. They’re really afraid.”

“Everyone says?” Allani repeated, rubbing at the bridge of her nose tiredly. “Rosia, just what is going on here?”

“It’s not bad,” Rosia insisted. “I don’t know why that man died, or why he even was where he was, but that was just an accident. Honestly. Please, if you just let me show you. It’s not bad, and I don’t think once you see it you’ll want to even tell the mining company what’s going on.”

“I work for the mining company,” Allani told her. “It’s my job to tell them what’s going on.”

“I’m not going to tell you anything,” Rosia said, suddenly stubborn. “You either see with your own eyes or try to find it yourself. I’m not talking. I’ll go back to the orphanage first.”

Allani didn’t really have any way to coerce the girl to talk. She could fire her, send her back to Ceres. Perhaps that would be the simplest thing. But she wouldn’t learn anything that way.

She could get actual law enforcement involved, if she had proof that anything criminal was going on. Which she didn’t.

Or she could go see whatever it was that Rosia wanted to show her.

“Then, by all means, show me this beehive,” Allani said at last. She sent messages to both of her subordinates about where she was going and what she was doing, and she checked the charge on her gun before leaving her office. Her gut told her all of that was overkill, but sometimes it was better not to listen to your gut.

Rosia led the way down the elevator to the mining levels, even deeper than where the body had been found.

Read the exciting conclusion in this month’s issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2023. Death Spiral by Kate MacLeod

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